Opening Space at the Bank of Montreal

By Larry Peterson**

(From At Work: Stories of Tomorrow’s Workplace,

 Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, March-April 1997)


The times are changing at the 34,000 employee Bank of Montreal. Bob Dylan’s song was purchased for a new ad campaign, and they are opening space all over the organization. There has been at least twelve major Open Space events over the last two years and many others that have not been counted. I was involved in two of those events as an external consultant and have heard stories about the others. Cross-bank meetings on productivity, divisional meetings, senior team meetings, business unit sessions have all been held using Open Space Technology. Their own internal evaluation research has encouraged increased understanding of the process and continued use.

Open Space has had more use in the Bank of Montreal than in any other large organization in Canada. The Bank’s three-year old Institute for Learning is one of the major reasons.

Institute for Learning

The Institute for Learning was created by Chairman Matthew Barrett to foster “a Bank that will be able to sustain a competitive advantage in a world that is rapidly and constantly changing.” He wanted the Bank to become a learning organization, and knew that traditional approaches to learning and training were not going to be enough. He envisioned the Institute as a “nexus for incubator for new ideas and the focus of the Bank’s commitment to lifelong learning”. Teams of developers, educators and line experts work together there to create tools that both support learning and further the work of the Bank while a “Manager of Meta-Learning” focuses on new approaches to learning. The Institute also helps the Bank tackle the “wicked problems”--those that cross organizational boundaries and defy solution.

The Institute recognizes that the desire and capacity for learning are as important as the learning itself. This requires personal initiative and self-directed action. Open Space Technology creates the conditions for both and works well with very large or small groups. This combination has provided the Institute with a “large systems intervention” approach for solving wicked problems and cultivating a learning culture.

The Bank of Montreal’s connection to Open Space began serendipitously. While at the Center for Creative Leadership in the United States, Jim Rush, director of the Institute, met Jim Emerich, an independent consultant. As they discussed the challenges of creating a learning culture, Jim Emerich suggested Open Space as a way to engage employees in their own learning and better tap the knowledge within the organization.

Rush liked what he heard and, with the assistance of Harrison Owen, planned the Bank’s first Open Space, a two-day forum with the Institute’s 110 staff. The theme of the event was “What does success look like for the Institute for Learning?” and it was facilitated by Jim Emerich. The event was powerful in demonstrating the value of Open Space as a catalyst for both collaborative learning and problem solving. Next was a larger, Bank-wide event focused on the issue of productivity.

Productivity is one of those “wicked” problems that crosses all boundaries. In April of 1995, one hundred and fifty people from throughout the Bank gathered at the Institute for Productivity Forum ‘95. The event, led by Harrison Owen, generated palpable enthusiasm and commitment. Those who saw productivity as being related to morale were amazed at the energy that was created. The executives and managers interviewed after the forum saw it as “just the beginning” which it was.

Although the forum was a relatively small event, there was enough of a critical mass present to have a significant impact on the Bank. There were no immediate improvements in overall productivity that could be measured, but a number of small Open Space events, led by forum participants, began taking place throughout the organization. These events also fostered a positive shift in morale and energy. People were starting to put up paper on the wall to create agendas and to address their issues. A new way of meeting and learning from colleagues was discovered. Stories began to ripple across the country. Over the next several months, demonstrations of productivity improvement began to emerge resulting from the initiative of Open Space participants.

Building on the Momentum

The Institute for Learning wanted to build on this momentum and arranged a November 1995 workshop entitled “Living in Open Space,” which brought together those who shared an interest in the continuing use of Open Space. The weekend event reinforced interest in Open Space across the Bank and increased the confidence of executives to try this approach in a variety of settings. It also allowed some employees to gain skill in facilitating Open Space meetings. For example, Diane Blair, the “Manager of Meta Learning”, developed the capability to lead large Open Space events and now assists others in designing Open Space events to fit their particular circumstances.

I met Diane Blair at a annual gathering of Open Space practitioners called “Open Space on Open Space”. She saw me as a local resource with particular experience in small, abbreviated Open Space events. At her request, I answered the questions of a newly appointed Eastern Division senior executive as to the use of Open Space.

In January 1996, this executive proceeded with an Open Space event for his first Divisional meeting. The event was unusual for the Bank because it was truly by invitation. Divisional managers or staff who usually attended but did not RSVP did not get to come. The first meeting’s results were so productive that the Division held its second meeting in Open Space in November 1996.

Other Divisions of the Bank have been following this lead. In March 1996, I worked with the senior management team in a Western Canada Division to prepare for a Divisional Open Space in April. The executive hosting the Open Space was also newly appointed; neither she nor her team had direct experience with the approach. I led a small, one-day event during which they explored the challenges and opportunities for leading the shift to a sales focused culture. This small event consolidated that senior team in surprising ways, preparing them for the larger event. One vice president said that it had been one of his few “wows” at the Bank. One month later, 150 participants from the Division then met at the Institute for Learning for almost a week. The first half of the time was a creative leadership workshop. The second half of the event was an opportunity to exercise that leadership in Open Space.

An example of how Open Space can catch on comes from a Western division vice president who attended those meetings. He was excited by the results of the small space event and the following Divisional meeting. He took the Toronto “Train the Trainers” event in early June 1996 and then, in the same month, led four Open Space events in his Division. At one of those events, the participants were told, not invited, to come. They still said it was the “best meeting ever”. After those events, some Open Space groups formed during these events have continued to work for months on the issues for which they had a passion. The Divisional meetings are now “more open and more productive” because of Open Space. This experience led another Western Canada Division held its annual leadership meeting in Open Space in December 1996.

Lessons Learned

I have Opened the Space in other Canadian corporations and banks over the last two years. There have been some productive and energizing meetings: strategic plans have emerged and been implemented in record time. The Bank of Montreal, however, has moved the farthest. I think the following factors have contributed.

·       A culture of innovation, which encourages experimentation, has been fostered by the chairman,

·       The Institute for Learning and its staff have championed and supported Open Space.

·       The first use of Open Space at the Institute for Learning had a positive impact.

·       Productivity Forum 95 had enough of an impact to catalyze a critical mass of interest.

·       Word has been spread both through personal stories and the bank’s internal communications system.

·       Confidence in Open Space was supported by the Institute for Learning’s positive assessment of the non-traditional and broad ranging Open Space outcomes.

·       Some senior and divisional executives were willing to take the risk to set a theme and parameters and then let-go to allow self-organization to take place.

·       Participants have found the experience of Open Space liberating and morale boosting, and they have been willing to try it in their own settings.

·       A variety of external consultants and events helped to legitimize the approach and build connections to the internal leadership.

As divisions begin to hold their second Open Space meetings, the focus of the Institute for Learning is to build on what has been learned over the past year. It wants to help the divisions harvest what is generated in Open Space. This image of harvesting what is grown in Open Space is certainly better than trying to leverage what is not a mechanical process. Executives and managers reap what they sow, but in Open Space, the synergy and surprises often go beyond what is expected.

The Institute for Learning is also sharing some of what it has discovered in its Business and Educational partnerships. One example is the Summer Institute on Exploring Change, a forum that involves 13 School Boards in the Greater Toronto Area and now uses Open Space as part of its approach to change.

Even with the extensive use of Open Space, the Bank has not transformed most of its decision-making processes. The hierarchy is suspended on occasion and old barriers are overcome. However, many decisions are still managed with a traditional top down approach. What seems to be evolving is the presence and acceptance of multiple structures and processes working in the corporation at the same time.

Open Space meetings demonstrate a new form of ongoing management. Managers can clarify focus and parameters, let go, and engage spirited performance and frequent breakthroughs. The Bank of Montreal is now on a journey of experiencing and exploring these possibilities.

* *With Special Thanks to Diane Blair